Today I held the first performance review for a new employee.

For some, this sounds about as much fun as a dentist's chair or a Congressional inquiry hotseat, but it doesn't have to be that way. Done right, a performance review is one of the best opportunities  to encourage and support high performers and constructively improve your middle- and lower-tier workers. Far from a formality (or an inquisition!), it's a great opportunity for professional development and stronger relationship-building. So how do you make your performance review actually worthwhile? I use these six strategies.

1. Set expectations up front.

When we sat down with Susan (let's just call her that), the first thing we did was to lay out a quick "agenda" for the performance review. "I wanted to quickly talk through how things have been going," I started. Then we can talk about a few areas for growth in the next quarter, and see what we can do on our end to make your experience here even better." Starting off with a brief agenda means your employee has a good idea about what to expect during the meeting.

2. Begin the review by asking how things are going from your employee's perspective.

Yes, it's her review--but starting it off as a dialogue where you're listening will help set a constructive tone for the meeting, plus give you a read on where your employee's head is at. This has the added benefit of allowing her to be the one to raise any potential areas where she's underperforming or suggest opportunities she's excited to pursue in the future.

3. Give specific, tactical feedback.

I like to open performance reviews by focusing on the employee's core area (e.g. operations) and commending her for the work she does well. Giving specific examples of positive behavior is important--for example, if she's good at building relationships with clients, excels in handling tough negotiations, or keeps her projects exceptionally well-organized. Recognizing these things will help your employee feel her work is noticed and valued, provide positive reinforcement for what she's doing well, and start the conversation on a positive note, even if you have constructive criticism to give later on.

4. Understand that there is always room for growth.

Even your most talented employees have room for growth in some area, and you're doing your employee a disservice if the sum of your review is: "You're great!" No matter how talented the employee, think of ways he could grow towards the position he might want to hold two, five, or 10 years down the line.

For example, many individuals follow a similar trajectory: first executing work at the direction of others (e.g., an intern), then taking responsibility for small projects (entry-level), then managing discreet sections of work (senior team member), and finally owning large projects and initiatives (manager/leader). Ask yourself: How you can help your employee prepare for the next phase? What skills does she need to build or refine to take on the next level of responsibility? What growth opportunities can you give her to practice those?

Of course, if your employee isn't excelling, a review is also the time to bring up constructive feedback. In this case, it's helpful for you to orient the conversation around skills that he or she needs to be building, and to point to specific examples where there is room for improvement.

5. Set expectations for the future.

Part of every performance review is to help an employee understand what's next for him or her. Is she in line for a promotion or a raise? Do you foresee an opportunity for him to take on a new project, which you're planning to recommend him for? Are there behaviors she needs to fix or improve on if she is envisioning a future with the company? Sharing what's ahead your employee is important to helping her stay motivated in her job.

6. Ask plenty of questions.

Finally, no performance review is complete without a set of reverse questions: How does your employee feel about their time and work so far? What's working--and more importantly, what isn't? What are his professional goals for the next six months or six years, and how can this position help him achieve them? Understanding your employee's perspective can go a long way towards increasing productivity and happiness. Your employee may have brought some of these topics up at the beginning of the review, but it always a good idea to close the review by revisiting these them as part of your discussion about the future.